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Approach to bicycle servicing

This post is about approaching a bicycle that needs repairs, or regular maintenance. Perhaps it sounds a bit absurd – “what’s the big deal in how to approach a bicycle?”, but in the remainder of this post, I’ll explain what’s the “catch”.

Table Of Contents (T.O.C.):

  1. Introduction
  2. Talking to the client
    1.1. Listening
    1.2. Confirming the facts
  3. Looking over a bicycle
    2.1. First impression
    2.2. Detailed examination
  4. Agreement with the client
    3.1. What should be done
    3.2. Determining the budget
    3.3. Deadlines
  5. Wise man writes things down…

0. Introduction

Why is a correct approach to bicycle servicing important? I’ve had the opportunity to hone my skills in a large bicycle repair shop. What does work in a large bicycle shop look like?

  • There are lots of bicycles, with new ones coming in for repairs/maintenance constantly. It is important to work quickly, otherwise bicycles pile up quickly.
  • Tools available, as well as space are limited, with several mechanics working simultaneously.

This means one must “grab” in time the needed tools, truing stand(s) etc, depending on what kind of work needs to be done. At the same time, taking tools that are not used creates problems for other mechanics and causes delays. Because of such working conditions, author of this post had developed a “system” that enables to quickly and accurately judge what kind of work needs to be done and with which tools. I’ll explain this below, step by step. Recommendations given in this post are valid for practically every situation and help do a good job faster and more easily.

– T.O.C. –

1. Talking to the client

If one is working on their own bicycle, this step is not required, of course, though it can be fun for the people looking.  🙂

1.1. Listening

People usually say if there’s something wrong with the bike that they are aware of, otherwise make sure to ask if there are any problems with the bike, with an obligatory, “is there something else I should know?” Just in case they missed, forgot something. One must be patient, well mannered and listen carefully. Without looking at the bike, just memorising what is being said. Time spent here pays tenfold later!

Try “reading between the lines” – people who are not technically educated often use wrong terms, or say one thing, but mean something different. Not talking about lying here, just something like: “my hand brake is not working”, thinking of the front brake, on a bicycle that has both brakes actuated with brake levers on the bars. Or “my pedals are loose”, while they are thinking of loose cranks from play in bottom bracket bearings – etc.

– T.O.C. –

1.2. Confirming the facts

Make sure that things client said are the same as the things that the mechanic understood. I can’t stress this enough! Presuming things often causes confusion. One “if I understood correctly”, followed by a list of things said by the client, often solves many potential misunderstandings. I like to write these things down, on a bicycles service paper, once they are determined and confirmed.

– T.O.C. –

2. Looking over a bicycle

2.1. First impression

Take your time to look over the bicycle. First, just look at it from the drive (right) side, standing far enough that most of the bike fits your field of view. Don’t “zoom” into details, just try to “take it all in”. Does it look fine, or does something look out of place? Take a “mental note” of anything suspicious, to get back to it later.

Procedure is repeated for the opposite side of the bicycle, then from the front and from the back. Memorising all the noticed “problems”.

This needs to be done leisurely, as if admiring the bike from afar – otherwise one risks “not seeing the forest for the trees”.

– T.O.C. –

2.2. Detailed examination

Now is the time to pay close attention to everything. Best done by some order, so nothing is missed. Here’s my “check list”:

  • Saddle and bars – does the bike bend, or creak when leaned on, is something loose, or broken?
  • Wheels – first the rear, then the front. Checking play in the bearings, loose, bent, or broken spokes, spoke to rim and hub attachment points, rim and tyre state.
  • Fork – bearings, if it’s a suspension fork does it slide up and down nicely, is there any play, sticking, any dents, misalignment, or anything broken.
  • Frame – looking for dents, cracks, corrosion, loose bolts (for water bottles, mudguards etc.), checking symmetry and alignment.
  • Brakes – front, then rear, are they working fine, are they catching the wheel still, after being released? What’s the condition of brake levers, housing, cables, hoses, calipers, pads?

Now’s the time to put the bike on the stand, if there is one. Otherwise, rear wheel can be lifted off the ground with one hand (grabbing seat tube, saddle rails, or the rear part of the frame, not the saddle).

  • Shifters and derailleurs – front and rear. State of shifters, housing, cables, derailleurs. Is there any play in derailleurs, are they moving nicely and freely, are they bent or misaligned? Are the shifters working and clicking nicely? Does the bike shift well?
  • Cranks – are there any cracks, any play in bottom bracket bearings, are the cranks spinning nicely, any dents, bent chainrings, are the chainrings worn? Are the pedals fine?
  • Chain – is it too rusty, are there any suck, or damaged links, is it too dirty, is it worn and it’s time to replace the chain? Is the chain of the correct length and type (optimal chain length for bicycles with derailleurs and single speed optimal chain length).
  • State of accessories – bells, lights, mudguards, child seats etc…

With special attention to problems that the client had reported. Best to write down all the noticed problems at the end.

– T.O.C. –

3. Agreement with the client

Experienced mechanic will know by heart what the parts and the labour cost is for fixing the determined problems – and what tools are needed for the planned interventions.

3.1. What should be done

It is mechanic’s responsibility to let the client know how the service choices will affect bicycle’s functioning and safety, as well as to clearly list all the prices and options.

See with the client what they want done. Try to understand the client’s priorities – low price, flawless functioning, repair speed (deadline)… Bearing that in mind, make recommendations, especially for things important for safety (bad brakes, cracked cranks etc.) and help the client decide.

Since a bicycle is a set of connected components, and one component’s malfunction affects the others, I think it is best to do a full service of a bicycle, and then continue with regular maintenance, but each client has their own priorities, budget etc, so it is always up to them.

– T.O.C. –

3.2. Determining the budget

Cost of some repairs (hubs overhaul for example) can’t be precisely determined until the part is all disassembled, cleaned and inspected. Only then can be seen what parts need replacing for example. That is why it is good to determine a maximum repair budget, in advance, in case something unexpected happens (damaged cone when servicing hubs, for example, that needs to be replaced with a new one). This saves a lot of phone-time, explaining to the client what has come up, telling them the price, checking if it’s OK to go on etc.

That is also being more fair to the client. I’ll use a hub service example again. If a client can’t approve for buying new cones (if needed) for a hub, then, in case the old cones are damaged, money paid for hub overhaul is wasted – since a hub with damaged cones won’t last very long. This will come with experience, but it’s always good to predict the “worst case scenario” and see with the clients what the options are, explaining to them the consequences of each choice.

Otherwise, a client with a limited budget can feel cheated:  “You’ve said the price, now you want more money, or the repair will be only very short-term!?” Likewise, a client with a larger budget might get annoyed for having to confirm “every detail” over the phone.

For this to really work, clients must have trust in your judgement and competence. You’re not pushing for more money, you’re trying to do a best possible job for them. If you really mean that and do it that way, people will usually sense that and try to work with you.

– T.O.C. –

3.3. Deadlines

I like to say: “deadlines are not important… except when they are!” Always check and determine deadlines for finishing. How important is that for the client. If you don’t know the deadlines, you are in a simple first in – first out operation. Why is this bad, isn’t that the fairest thing? It’s inhumane, but I’ll explain.

Imagine you have just started a full service on a bicycle. It takes at least a couple of hours. A cyclist comes with a flat tyre. Then another one. Then another one with a broken chain! If it goes on, you won’t be able to finish the full service today. Or you’ll have to stay a few hours overtime. This is a common situation in bike repair shops during the cycling season.

“Wait, did the full-service bike client say they were on a vacation, expecting to come for the bike next week? Or was it that competitor that needs the bike for the race tomorrow? Or should I just not bother and let these people with flat tyres push the bikes home – they’ll manage?”

Do you now understand the importance and usefulness of knowing your deadlines? They help you organise better and provide the best possible service (with your capacities) for the community as a whole.

A word of caution: there are some people who will say that it’s no rush, but will call each day to see if the bike is finished. As well as people who will say it’s urgent and then not come to pick the bike up for months. I treat these as an “update of the determined deadlines” and act accordingly.

– T.O.C. –

4. Wise man writes things down…

… a fool remembers. It is good to write down all the determined and agreed upon things from the previous paragraphs. It’s not a bad idea to print this and give it to the client – stating arranged services, deadline and the contact phone they have provided. Things said are often forgotten, or misinterpreted, but written down is a safe bet.

I keep track using two columns: services agreed upon (with the deadline and client’s name with a contact phone), and all the other noticed problems (i.e. the state of the bicycle after the service). This takes a bit of time, but is very good in the long run, especially with regular customers. Using hub service example one more time: a hub with pitted cups, that the owner didn’t want to replace, is noted in bike’s service history. Next time the bike gets into service, there’s no need for the client to pay for servicing the hubs with pitted cups – once the play gets too big, the hubs, or the wheels, need replacing. This is fair for the client (not paying for jobs that don’t help), for other clients (not making your shop overloaded with work that doesn’t help anyone, so there will be less waiting time), and it helps the mechanics – it doesn’t feel nice doing useless work, over and over again…

Finally, after all the explained things, there will always be dissatisfied clients and misunderstandings. However, the goal and the point of all this is to keep that as near to zero as possible. From every mistake and problem, a lesson should be learned and it should be analysed how to prevent such things from happening again.

Related post – Theory vs practice:

Theory, or practise - what is more important?
Theory, or practice – what is more important?

– T.O.C. –

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